Worm saliva breaks down plastic in major pollution breakthrough | climate news
A worm could be the answer to solving the problem of what to do about one of the most common forms of plastic pollution.
Spanish researchers have discovered that chemicals in waxworm saliva can break down polyethylene, a particularly durable material.
Their research found that uncovering the plastic caused by the creature’s saliva to decompose in a single hour as much as several years of normal exposure to the elements.
Waxworms, the larvae of the wax moth, normally feed on the tough wax that bees use to make comb, and are actually considered pests by beekeepers.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, discovered that two enzymes in the worm’s saliva — which it uses to break down the wax — also break down the plastic.
In order for plastic to degrade, oxygen must penetrate plastic molecules known as polymers, a process known as oxidation.
Research found that the enzymes in saliva allowed this process to take place within a few hours, without the plastic having to be pre-treated by exposure to heat or radiation.
Polyethylene is the world’s most widely used plastic and accounts for enormous amounts of environmental pollution.
First made in 1933, it’s inexpensive, durable, and doesn’t interact with food, making it widely available.
It is specially designed to be difficult to break and can remain intact for decades.
Enzymes were made synthetically
This breakthrough could change that, however, according to Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) molecular biologist Federica Bertocchini, who led the study, saying it would “change the paradigm of plastic biodegradation”.
She further explained that not only did they figure out which enzymes break down the plastic, but they also managed to produce them synthetically, avoiding the need to use billions of waxworms to do the work.
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Such an approach would have several practical disadvantages and would also generate a large amount of carbon dioxide as the worms metabolize the polyethylene.
Plastic consumption has skyrocketed over the past 30 years, with hundreds of millions of tons ending up as waste each year and less than 10% of that being recycled.
In March this year, following talks in Nairobi, the United Nations adopted a landmark deal to create the world’s first global plastic pollution deal, aiming to complete a legally binding deal by 2024.
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